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The Boston Globe

Opinion

  

JOANNA WEISS

In the company of women

Mayer’s chance to influence the culture at Yahoo and beyond

AFP/Getty Images

At 37, Marissa Mayer is the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

It’s hard not to cheer this new female model of the corporate executive, the Silicon Valley power babe who mixes glamour and boardroom guts. Marissa Mayer, the new, pregnant head of Yahoo, was Google’s first female engineer, used spreadsheets to find the perfect cupcake recipe, and gushed about her cardigans in Vogue. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg also appeared in Vogue (in red satin), and was interviewed by The New Yorker (in sweats) after dropping off her preschool son at school. Here’s to women who excel in science, excel in business, like talking about pastry and their kids.

And here’s to Mayer for her induction into a club that we probably shouldn’t have at all.

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For several decades running now, America has been transfixed by the cult of the CEO — the notion that what a corporation needs is an all-powerful, swashbuckling star, tailor-made for a gushing magazine profile. The idea first took hold in the 1980s with Lee Iacocca and continued through Jack Welch, said Rakesh Khurana, a Harvard Business School professor and author of “Searching for a Corporate Savior.” It has helped fuel our system of absurdly, high pay packages, enormous golden parachutes, emphases on short-term gains over long-term stability.

 Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer of Facebook.

associated press

Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer of Facebook.

Adding another woman to the pantheon is good news, but it’s also a risk. Mayer could be the person who turns Yahoo around, but history shows that CEOs are far less influential than the hype suggests. The biggest factor that predicts a business’s success is the industry it happens to be in, Khurana said, followed by general economic conditions and corporate strategy, which is hard to change within the short-term tenure of a modern corporate star. If Mayer fails, then the fact that she’s a young mother could bear part of the blame. If she succeeds, some will declare that workplace discrimination is over. Either way, the pressure is unfair to her, and to women in general.

“Why should every woman have be so extraordinary to be CEO, when we have so many mediocre men?” Khurana said. “The day a mediocre woman becomes a CEO is the day we should celebrate.”

But what if that risk is also the silver lining — if the troubles at Yahoo free up Mayer to make a more lasting contribution to corporate culture? I’m not talking about the current mommy-wars eruption over the length of her maternity leave; that’ s entirely her choice, and it’s an easy one. She has plenty of money for child care. She can order her team to come to her house while the baby sleeps on her lap. She can hire a personal chef. She’ll be fine.

And if she chooses, she could influence the culture at Yahoo and beyond, making it possible for other women to make their own choices.

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This has been a popular reaction to Mayer’s ascendancy, championed by the likes of newly minted work/life guru Anne-Marie Slaughter. And yes, it’s an unfair burden on one person. If a man were helming Yahoo and his wife were pregnant, we wouldn’t ask him to change the world.

On the other hand, Mayer seems to like the spotlight, and her cultlike status makes her a perfect champion. Sandberg, too, has tried to advocate for women in business, with mixed results: Her talk of an ambition gap met with backlash, but she won kudos for announcing that she routinely leaves the office at 5:30 to have dinner with her kids. Even better, she gets credit for Facebook’s relatively generous parental leave policy, plus the $4,000 in “baby cash” the company gives to new and adoptive parents.

Whether Mayer can make Yahoo a model company for women — whether she even wants to — is an open question. She has a history of working all hours in an all-hours kind of business, where the workers remain overwhelmingly male. She’ll have to model new habits, change old policies, make flexibility a new priority.

But one thing about being a charismatic CEO, especially of a troubled company, is that you know the parameters. If your time is likely short, and your payout is nonetheless huge, you might as well make the most of it. Marissa Mayer has a tremendous bully pulpit — in the business pages, and also in Vogue. Could corporate culture be her new baby, too?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

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